A Non-Critical Pondering on Vuong’s “On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous” – Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Feb 19, 2021 | Bookworm | 0 comments


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong
256 p

I haven’t written a book review in a while. And now, when a bunch of years have mushroomed between the last course taken on Lit theory, and I sitting with this book, suddenly realizing that I wasn’t really reading it, but holding on to its sentences (that moved with a kind of unique luminescence), like they were a kind of raft—something that felt strangely essential for survival was a fraught revelation. Whose survival though?

I haven’t written a book review in a long while. Much of the critical acumen to look closely at a text, pitting it under a microscope, I cannot find them anywhere inside my cluttered room of a brain—only some empty phrases remain, evidence of concepts superficially learned and lost. This has also been the deepest fear that kept me away from anything faintly formal as a review. But then there was this book. Which, I am sure has already invited volumes of critical observations from far superior intellectual minds than mine, but it held me. With a connection so certain that the need to talk about it supersedes the fear of sounding lame and almost doesn’t demand the invocation of the knowledge of forgotten jargons.

My first encounter with Vuong’s writing happened as part of a creative writing workshop curriculum. We greeted at least one new writer’s work every week. I remember recommending the little book of poems “Night Sky with Exit Wound” because that is what I end up doing when after finishing a book, it feels like I have swallowed something giant— an old Sequoia or a mountain range (it could be the other way round as well) and, unless I share and speak about it, I cannot move around with it. However, I no longer recall the matters of that book, except a few images that broke off during the process of reading and discussion and lodged themselves in parts from where they can only be seen but are not understood or touched. The petite book sits somewhere on a friend’s bookshelf in Michigan.

The one that I am here to write a review about today is the poet’s debutant work in a novel. Let me first make it clear that I propose the term “Novel” only loosely as genre definition is only the “Exit wound”: an aperture that reveals only a fraction of an artform that always is much bigger and far more complex.  The phrase “Exit wound” is one that got inscribed inside me belongs to his previous book. There he creates this amazing image of stars as wounds on the body of night from where light escapes.

The narrative is composed of a series of unsent letters to the protagonist’s mother. Let’s ponder some on this very unique space for it fractures the very forms it was made with. Letters are conversations that happen over time lapses between two people existing apart spatially and temporally. They are targeted vessels to carry words and emotions of the sender to the recipient.  Letters that are unsent, not by accident but by intention, who to whom do they speak? Those letters then built their own world—the fantasy bubble in itself where old boundaries are removed and new lands are forged.

The narrative reverberates with delicate lyricism and a deep poetic vision as it weaves memories and confessions of a Vietnamese immigrant boy as he grows up, realizes, and comes to terms with his homosexuality, the conflicts of belonging and unbelonging to continents simultaneously.

“What is country but a borderless Sentence” (p8)

Novels are mammoth creatures. And Vuong goes at it with all his poetic might.  He weaves moments and observations and those associations become their own artefacts in the soft spread of the narrative itself. Even though the novel declares itself free of obliging to “Truth,” it is by doing so it opens a fault line from where deepest truths can be unearthed. Truths formed at the heart of “unknown” people when their lives are touched and moved by “big” histories—War, Voyage and immigration translating to interracial marriage and a perennial geyser of nightmares and dreams about a home left, a home unreachable, forever.

“When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?”(p12)

The boy who is meek and odd to his bullying classmates,  he who gets paid in stories for plucking off white snow hairs from his Lan, is filled by two countries at the same time. He speaks the foreign language as his first while the dirt and roots, the war memories and realities of his mother slogging at the nail salon spool around him like an irrefutable cocoon. History becomes him. The present becomes him.

And this history, since it is woven in forms of personal anecdotes, often delirious and singsong at the core, and since the body of all this is a bunch of personal letters dismantles the linearity of time. Moving back and forth like a weaver’s shuttle it forms the most authentic image of itself—the image that is formed over time, as “Little Dog” runs along the edge of his present, has an unseen past forged in his memory as if with the responsibly of protecting it—a family heirloom of loss and soil. But that’s not all it does. With inheritance, he discovers chapters that start with him, him essentially. His relationship, as its sparks and grows from a cellular being to an overarching nimbus consuming him in full.

Vuong argues that his work rather than standing out as a “self-arising wunderkind” [1] in fact, came to be as he drew formal inspirations from a long line of literary predecessors—artists and art-forms. Vuong acknowledges the rich metaphoric style as a form borrowed from the 19th century European masters. A form that lost relevance after the great wars only to resurface in the refugee narratives of the postmodern times. When the wars massacre the dignity of life, bodies and earth, metaphors become a healing cover on the wounds, and the violated organs of existence.  A cover that speaks of the trauma as if that were the only medicine that relieved the pain.

The renovation of metaphoric language—moving it away from the canon gave birth to descriptions such as  “ but for now, the city brims before us with a strange, rare brilliance—as if it was not a city at all, but the sparks made by some god sharpening his weapons above us” (p151)

There are ‘n’ number of subjects to talk about this text—its exploration of the crisis and beauty of queer identity, its narration of the history of fringes. But then those are subjects of research and criticism— I’d better keep away from venturing into those waters.

Instead, let me just stay a bit more with the language. Maybe now, I have said enough to go back to the question left unanswered at the opening of this piece. As a writer torn between forms, languages and lands, I have experienced the act of creating art as one unbelievably tortuous. So much so that months pass between writing and healing from and by it. Vuong’s work seems to be made out of that struggle taken “head on, and you cross it, like a bridge, to face them, to enter them”(p97) . With this book, I may just survive giving up on expressing even if it means blindingly hurting through sentences and thoughts. It is a raft.

And a curriculum to me —a book on seeing things—lover’s irises, migration of monarchs and mother’s nails weathered from the salon chemicals as part of a whole—it shows how broken things, deer shadows  and all human experiences hold a gleam within. That which makes all specks of dust “briefly” yet so deeply gorgeous around us.

[1] https://lithub.com/ocean-vuong-the-10-books-i-needed-to-write-my-novel/

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri is a Bengali artist and writer trying to find her roots across continents and oceans. She weaves hybrid pieces about memory, women and bodies using what is often awkward if not an unsavory tangle of Bangla and English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. She is a collector of girl-names, pretty pebbles and family-recipes. Her address keeps changing. 


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